Remembering the Cat Lady of Spitalfields
When I published Phil Maxwell‘s wonderful photographs of the mysterious Cat Lady of Spitalfields, my friend Rodney Archer contacted me to say that he used to know her and has even included her as a character in the novel he is writing. So I went round to enjoy a cup of tea and shot of rum with Rodney in his cosy basement kitchen in Fournier St, eager the learn more about this enigmatic presence who made it her business to befriend all the felines in Spitalfields during the nineteen eighties.
Rodney: Joan went all around the neighbourhood feeding the cats regularly and she had names for them. And you’d see her crouching, looking through the corrugated iron surrounding Truman’s Brewery, waiting for the cats to come and then they suddenly all appeared. I think once I saw her there and I asked her what she was doing, and she said ‘I’m waiting for the cats to appear.’
‘My darlings,’ she really did call them, ‘My darlings,’ and it was wonderful in a way that she had this love of cats and spent her life encouraging them and feeding them and keeping them alive.
I could never quite work it out, but she had a bag, like one of those trolleys you carry, full of cat food. Now, either she’d taken the tops off the tins or something, since I noticed – because she had a kind of witchlike aspect – that although she put her hands right into the tin to feed them and then just threw it down, I never saw any cat food on her hands. It was like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Over the years, I would chat to her and she was someone that you had to have some time for, because once she began she went on and on. She lived down off Brick Lane and she had her own flat, and I don’t know if it was a council flat, but eventually she was moved to South London. I think she was not an easy neighbour and, whether she was surrounded by immigrants, she certainly didn’t like anyone from any other place but England.
So, I’d chat with her when she’d come up from South London on the 40 bus, I think that stops at Aldgate. Every day she would come back, even though she had moved on, and she would make her way round the neighbourhood. She wore these snowboots, I remember once commenting on her new boots, and they were a gift from her sister.
It’s a strange thing about Spitalfields – when I read again what I had written about the Cat Lady, I thought, ‘My God, did I make this up?’ but I wouldn’t have made up that she died. And I do remember going to her funeral and I was one of the only mourners and there was this woman, and we went and had tea together afterwards and it was her sister, and I don’t think there was much contact. She was totally unlike the Cat Lady because the Cat Lady was strange – she spent all her money on the cats – she was like a character out of Dickens. She was almost a street person, except she had a place to live. And she did get benefits and she wasn’t an alcoholic or anything, she was very doughty, she had a bit of a moustache.
She was the kind of woman that, a hundred years ago, people would have been fearful of in a way. There was something awesome about her, because she had her own aura and she was there to feed the cats, and the cats were much more important to her than people. And I’d talk about my cat to her, and I think once she stopped by my door and I opened it, and my cat sat looking at her and she would ask me about him. I don’t know if she had any cats at home. I don’t know how old she was exactly, she must have been in her sixties or seventies, I suppose. You might look up William Taylor’s description of her in his book “This Bright Field,” – did he get in touch with you?
The Gentle Author: Yes, he wrote to say he thought she was called Joan and she had this mantra which was “Cats are better than rats.” Were there a lot of rats here at that time?
Rodney: I think there were. When the market was still going and you had all the fruit and vegetables, the rats would come out to feed. I never saw that myself, but you might see a rat running along the curb. A lot of people said they were looking forward to the market closing because the area would be cleaner and neater, but I regretted that the market left and there weren’t cabbages everywhere.
The Gentle Author: Can you remember when you first saw the Cat Lady?
Rodney: I think I first saw her on the corner of Fournier St and Brick Lane. She had a huge physical endurance, but I think she must have been exhausted by her journey every day, because she would often stop and she’d stop for quite a long time, and she’d just be there looking around, I suppose she might have been looking for the cats. That’s why you could pass her and catch up with her and ask her how she was doing.
So one day I just spoke to her. Maybe I’d seen her around and I said, ‘Are you feeding the cats?’ And she told me, and I said had a cat and so we talked about cats and the wisdom of cats and all that kind of thing. And afterwards I’d see her quite often, but I couldn’t always stop because sometimes it was difficult to know how to reply if she was saying something you disagreed with.
The Gentle Author: How did you discover that the Cat Lady had died?
Rodney: Somehow, someone who knew her told me. The funeral was out at the East London Crematorium. Her sister was there from the North of England, she seemed of be a kind of middle class woman who’d married and had a family and was quite respectable in a way that Joan wasn’t.
The Gentle Author: Do you know if the Cat Lady had a family?
Rodney: I don’t think she had any close relatives at all – she didn’t talk much about her past life – but she was the great mother of all the cats.
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell